The perfect game plan

Winning the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Santee Cooper Lakes presented by SEVIIN means so much to me. I would have taken a win anywhere, but to win it here meant a lot more.

I grew up here. Since I was a young kid, my family has had a camper that has permanently stayed in Taw Caw Creek. I grew up water skiing, tubing and fishing on the lake. I have been to John C. Land III Landing a billion times to watch tournaments. I also run a guide business on the lake. It was a cool place to get it done.

It was kind of surreal. Any tournament is special to win, but to hold up a Bassmaster trophy was incredible. Everyone knows B.A.S.S. and the Bassmaster Classic.

At any boat landing, you look at the back glass of nine out of 10 trucks, and they have a Bassmaster sticker on it. To hold that trophy means a lot more. And to get it done in front of all of the guys I’ve competed against — whether it was in Thursday nighters or jackpot tournaments on Saturdays — I felt like I did it for them and every angler in the area. 

You couldn’t write it any better. I had the perfect game plan. 

Practice wasn’t great, but I honestly didn’t check a whole lot of stuff. I stayed away from a lot of people and fished a lot of areas I don’t spend a whole lot of time in. I did this just to see if I could add something to what I already planned to fish. When they go shallow, it seems like they get on the same stuff every year. 

As the tournament got closer, I noticed they started pulling current, so I knew areas close to that current would start to play. In the prespawn, that will always be a factor. I went there and caught a 6-pounder and knew that was where I was going to start.

Day 1 kind of caught me off guard. I had 24 pounds pretty early in the morning, and I didn’t fish a lot of good stuff after that. If I knew it was going to take that much weight at the beginning of the tournament to lead, I probably would have tried to catch a whole lot more than 24-7. 

It wasn’t really until Day 2 that I knew I had a chance at winning. I had 27 pounds before 7:30, and at that point, I knew I had a shot. I had six hours to find one big bass, a 6- to 8-pounder, and if you give me that long, I feel like I can catch one of those bass. I caught one of those, and I knew I was going to be leading or close to it. Luckily I had the lead going into the last day, and it all worked out. 

After a productive morning, I moved to a specific tree I call my “guide tree.” Every guide trip, we fish that tree sometime in the afternoon. I’ve had a lot of clients catch them off that tree, and I have caught a lot of bass off that specific tree. It is a little deeper and has a depression on it. I caught a 7-10 off it the second day too. I went back the last day thinking there had to be another one there. 

I got to that tree, poled down, and I felt it bite. I knew it was the one I needed. Of course, like any other big fish that bites when you have a lot of money on the line, it jumped about nine times before it got to the boat. But what was weird was, everyone would have thought I would be freaking out, but it was the calmest I have ever fished in my life. Every move I made, I knew it was the right one. That bass was crazy.

As a kid, when you are at the pond reeling in a 5-pounder, you pretend like that is the winning bass in a Bassmaster tournament. This one actually was.

Getting to fish the Bassmaster Classic is every angler’s dream. To have a chance to fish it is going to be special. I may never get that chance again. There are guys who have fished the Elite Series that never get to fish the Classic. It is an important accomplishment and something I’m looking forward to, especially since it is in Texas. I feel like it is going to show out. 

In the big picture, this was an important result. After I left Lake Ouachita with a 117th-place finish, my worst finish since Lake Oneida in 2022, I had a bad taste in my mouth. I was joking around with people saying, “These guys are in trouble now. They’ve got a mad Kyle Austin coming at them at Santee Cooper.” 

To get the job done and get the maximum number of points out of Santee Cooper, we have things going in the right direction as far as qualifying for the Elites. It is kind of what I lacked in 2023. I missed the Elites by a spot or two, and I had a lot of great tournaments. But I never had one of those crazy good tournaments.

If you have followed me in the past, I only Top 10 in the fall. So to get it done at the third tournament gets some good momentum going.